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Texas History: Respite!

When I was a youngster, my mother and I would shop at Joske’s department store in downtown San Antonio. Often, we stopped to visit St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Commerce Street. We would slip in and sit in the back as the Mass was conducted.

Though we were not Catholic, Mom wanted me to know about the church. She would clarify the various rites and rituals being administered by the priest, and explained the beautiful stained glass windows and the murals on the side altars. It was an inspiring respite in a busy day.

Years later, this amazing church still stands out like a brilliant jewel set in the plinth of unsightly commercial buildings. It is believed that the cornerstone of St. Joseph church was laid in 1868 on ground that was the second site of the Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), before relocating to where the Alamo now stands.

At first, the small congregation held services in the Alamo. But when the abandoned land became available, congregants purchased it and started construction on their Gothic-inspired sanctuary. A steeple was added in 1898, and stained glass windows were imported from a factory in Munich, Germany, in 1902.

St. Joseph’s church was built to serve the large German immigrant population of the area. Friar Henry Pfefferkorn is still remembered as the founder of the Liederkranz, an all male chorus that continues to perform to this day.

Pfefferkorn is also credited with painting the Annunciation and the Assumption murals on the side altars.

Next door to St. Joseph’s church, the Joske’s department store had become a regional shopping destination. By 1945, the success of their business required them to enlarge their store. Joske’s approached St. Joseph’s church and offered to buy their grounds, church, and rectory. However, after prayer and much discussion, the membership voted unanimously to not sell.

In turn, Joske’s bought the property on all three sides of the church and built a huge multistory building. Now, St. Joseph’s church is almost completely surrounded by what is called RiverCenter Mall. Parishioners are forced to have multiple services and to rent space for vehicle parking and social gatherings.

Even in adversity, St. Joseph’s church has become a vibrant, multi-cultural worship center sparkling among the dreary glass and steel of downtown. Every day, people like my mother and I step away from their hurried life to soak in the beauty and peace that is found in the friendly confines of the church.

It reminds me of the loving invitation that Jesus gave humanity in Matthew 11:28 KJV, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” As St. Joseph’s church opens its doors to the weary, so Christ opens His arms to those who are lost and exhausted. Stop in for a visit soon.


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